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Colombia12 March 2004

Reporters Without Borders welcomes verdict for murder of journalist Jaime Garzón

Reporters Without Borders welcomed the verdict of a Colombian court that sentenced paramilitary leader Carlos Castaño to 38 years in prison in absentia for the August 1999 murder of journalist and humorist Jaime Garzón.

Two other men, Juan Pablo Ortiz and Edilberto Antonio Sierra, were acquitted of carrying out the murder for lack of evidence.

Castaño is leader of the extreme-right United Self-defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) paramilitary.

The international press freedom organisation, which was a civil party to the case, welcomed the verdict, which it said reflected the main conclusions of its own investigation.

Garzón, who worked for Radionet and TV channel Caracol Televisión, was gunned down in Bogota by two men on a motorbike on 13 August 1999.

Giving his verdicts on 10 March 2004, the judge Julio Roberto Ballén Silva ordered the opening of an investigation for "false testimony" against prosecution witnesses Maria Amparo Arroyave Mantilla, Wilson Javier Llano Caballero and Maribel Jiménez Montoya.

The three had lied in giving evidence against the accused Ortiz and Sierra "with the aim of sidetracking the investigation so that the real killers went unpunished," he said.

These witnesses had all been produced by the Department for Administrative Security (DAS), an intelligence service under direct authority of the president.

The judge also ordered an investigation into the implication of ten DAS officials, five of them high-ranking and including the former DAS head for Antioquia region and the current national deputy director. He further ordered a reopening of the Garzón murder inquiry to hunt the real killers and any others who may have ordered it.

"Our organisation will closely follow the investigation ordered by the judge until the full facts are uncovered about Jaime Garzón’s death," said Robert Ménard, secretary general of the international press freedom organisation.

"It is crucial that all those responsible, those who carried out the murder and those who ordered it, should be identified and caught. We welcome the verdict but it does not bring an end to impunity in this case," he said.

"The responsibility of the DAS in supplying false witnesses who sidetracked the investigation away from the real perpetrators of the crime should be clearly established and if confirmed the implicated officials punished, " said the organisation.

Reporters Without Borders also called for protection for all those linked to the investigation, suspects, lawyers and investigators. The José Alvear Restrepo lawyers collective says that several people were killed during the investigation and it reported intimidation against one of its staff working on the case, Claudia Julieta Duque.

Reporters Without Borders also strongly opposed any amnesty for Castaño in the framework of peace negotiations with the government. "In Colombia, where an average of four journalists are killed each year, impunity is the major enemy of press freedom," it said.

Examining magistrate Eduardo Meza, concluded on 2 January 2002 that the murder was ordered by Castaño and carried out by Juan Pablo Ortiz Agudelo, known as "El Bochas", who fired the fatal shots and Edilberto Antonio Sierra Ayala, or "Toño", the driver of the motorbike. The two were arrested respectively in January 2000 and September 2001. An arrest warrant was issued against Castaño in June 2000.

He considered the motive for the murder to be the involvement of Garzón in negotiations for the release of hostages held by the FARC and that Castaño believed the journalist had "played into the hands of the guerrillas" and had been paid for his services.

Some reports published in the press however spoke of investigators ruling out evidence that implicated members of the military.

In a statement released on 9 December 2003, Reporters Without Borders said, "We are extremely concerned at the possibility of a miscarriage of justice in this case as several of the testimonies used by the prosecution against the two defendants are not credible," the organisation said.

It added that it was particularly concerned about the fact that the prosecutor’s office and the DAS were sticking to a version of events that has been largely refuted in the course of the preceding hearings.

"It is essential that an enquiry be carried out into the possibility the DAS and the prosecutor’s office deliberately mishandled the investigations," it concluded.

Reporters Without Borders was represented in court by Alirio Uribe of the José Alvear Restrepo lawyer’s collective.

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